The installation of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran next month heralds a new chapter for the country. It is clear that he was elected not only because it was felt — both at the highest levels and by the people — that he was best placed to negotiate with the West on Iran’s nuclear programme but also because he was the candidate most likely to appeal to reform-hungry Iranians.
Rouhani is a protégé of the former president Muhammed Khatami, with whom I have had the chance to work. When he was President, I spent a whole day with him meeting political, civil society and religious leaders. Visiting him in Iran, I was always struck by his learning and his humility. Khatami knew about the puritan origins of the United States and the ways that tension between religious beliefs and liberty was resolved. He never tired of pointing out similarities between the difficulties of the Iranian experience and the founding of America. In opposition to the then fashionable ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, he launched his own ‘dialogue of civilisations’ programme.
Khatami’s presidency failed because the West, especially the US, did not respond adequately to his overtures, but also because he ran into opposition from hard-liners. His failure showed where real power resided — with the ‘Ulama’, the legal authority made up of the Guardianship of the Revolution, and with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The popular portrayal of Iran as a nation either driven by Islamic revolutionary fervour or by the periodic welling up of liberal political dissent does not do justice to the complexity of this society. There is constant interplay between the ancient civilisation of Iran and Islam in its political form. Iranians understand their identity as continuous with the pre-Islamic as well as the Islamic periods. Their attitude to art, for instance, particularly pictorial and even religious art, is quite different from the rest of the Islamic world’s.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the revolution, developed the notion of Wilayet-i-Faqui: the custodianship of the nation by Islamic Islamic jurists. Although there are some precedents for this in the constitutional history of Iran, such a comprehensive claim to the supremacy of Sharia and its interpreters strikes many as novel and there have been various challenges to it.
On the one hand there are those Shia divines who regard their task as simply the interpretation of the Quran, the Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet) and Fiqh, or jurisprudence; and so stay away from politics. On the other hand, there is a growing apocalyptic discourse about the return of the Mahdi, the imam expected before the climax of history who will restore justice among the nations and vindicate his own people. The outgoing President Ahmadinejad succeeded in harnessing the yearning for a better future embodied in this belief to his own ends. It remains true, nevertheless, that such beliefs can be used more positively to give direction and a sense of destiny to the people and even to be the basis for dialogue with those of other faiths, such as Jews and Christians, whose beliefs also have an eschatological dimension.
Which direction will Mr Rouhani take? The West is anxious to see how Mr Rouhani is to renew and augment his previous persona as chief negotiator for Iran on its nuclear ambitions. It will also want him to encourage negotiations between the Assad regime (which Iran supports) and the Syrian opposition. There will, similarly, be an expectation that Iran will use its influence to calm restive Shia populations in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.
It should be recognised, once and for all, that the West’s interest in Iranian foreign policy cannot be separated from Iran’s internal security and human rights situation. There will be little progress in Iran’s relations with the international community without progress in its human rights policies and the gradual emergence of a more inclusive and plural society.
For some years, a general ferment has been building in Iranian society. The different elements that make this up are mutually antagonistic and finding a resolution among them will be one of the major challenges of this presidency. There is, first of all, the continuing strength of the revolutionary establishment — not only of the hardline religious leaders but their numerous followers in the Revolutionary Guard and their vigilante army, the Basiji. Their activities are well-financed through the Bonyad foundation, which received the properties and funds of those belonging to the ancien regime, as well as the assets of foreign nations deemed inimical to Iran. Moreover, Iran has a strong current of Mahdist apocalypticism which can be deployed in support of anti-western or anti-Sunni actions, as it was, for example, during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet perhaps more widespread is the yearning among young people, women and the urban middle classes for more freedom of information, political opinion and artistic and literary expression, as well as a more liberal attitude towards behaviour, dress and relationships between the sexes.
The sorry tale of how religious and ethnic minorities have been treated in post-revolutionary Iran must be addressed. The ancient Jewish and Christian populations have halved, the Zoroastrians (the indigenous religion) have fared even worse than that and the persecution of the Baha’is has been appalling. Even Sunni Muslims lack basic freedoms, and ethnic groups like the Arabs, Kurds and Baluch have their own grievances. Rouhani ought to press for freedom of worship. The Iranian regime’s fear of ‘house churches’ has prevented even pastors and priests from visiting members of their congregation. Christian and Baha’i prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally. The property of churches and other religious groups seized at the Revolution should be returned and, where this is not possible, compensation provided.
Such actions would provide a sound basis for the re-opening of the dialogue of civilisations which President Khatami had initiated and the recommencement of dialogue between the different communities in Iran. Let us pray that the coming regime will be inspired by that rather than the more recent siren voices which have led it away from its own civilisation.
Michael Nazir-Ali is a former Bishop of Rochester, and director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.